Aletho News


Hansen’s backfire

By Judith Curry | Climate Etc. | July 26, 2015

Jim Hansen’s new paper, and his PR strategy, are raising a whole host of issues that are arguably a backfire for his objectives.

Last week, several media articles appeared about an alarming new paper by Jim Hansen, that was just being submitted to a journal and was not yet publicly available:

My first reaction was this: Why, of all the major news outlets,  is only the Washington Post carrying this? No AP, etc.? Why haven’t I received a copy of this paper (usually a reporter or one of the skeptical news outlets would send me a copy). I figured the press release and paper were sent to only a few favored journalists?

The ‘favored journalists’ hypothesis quickly evaporated as articles like this then started to appear:

The paper is now available online, for all to evaluate:

Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: Evidence from Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations that 2°C Global Warming is Highly Dangerous.

J. Hansen, M. Sato, P. Hearty, R. Ruedy, M. Kelley, V. Masson-Delmotte, G. Russell, G. Tselioudis, J. Cao, E. Rignot, I. Velicogna, E. Kandiano, K. von Schuckmann, P. Kharecha, A. N. Legrande, M. Bauer, and K.-W. Lo

Abstract. There is evidence of ice melt, sea level rise to +5–9 m, and extreme storms in the prior interglacial period that was less than 1 C warmer than today. Human-made climate forcing is stronger and more rapid than paleo forcings, but much can be learned by  combining insights from paleoclimate, climate modeling, and on-going observations. We argue that ice sheets in contact with the ocean are vulnerable to non-linear disintegration in response to ocean warming, and we posit that ice sheet mass loss can be approximated by a doubling time up to sea level rise of at least several meters. Doubling times of 10, 20 or 40 years yield sea level rise of several meters in 50, 100 or 10 200 years. Paleoclimate data reveal that subsurface ocean warming causes ice shelf melt and ice sheet discharge. Our climate model exposes amplifying feedbacks in the Southern Ocean that slow Antarctic bottom water formation and increase ocean temperature near ice shelf grounding lines, while cooling the surface ocean and increasing sea ice cover and water column stability. Ocean surface cooling, in the North Atlantic as well as the Southern Ocean, increases tropospheric horizontal temperature gradients, eddy kinetic energy and baroclinicity, which drive more powerful storms.We focus attention on the Southern Ocean’s role in aecting atmospheric CO2 amount, which in turn is a tight control knob on global climate. The millennial (500–2000 year) time scale of deep ocean ventilation aects the time scale for natural CO2 change, thus the time 20 scale for paleo global climate, ice sheet and sea level changes. This millennial carbon cycle time scale should not be misinterpreted as the ice sheet time scale for response to a rapid human-made climate forcing. Recent ice sheet melt rates have a doubling time near the lower end of the 10–40 year range.We conclude that 2 C global warming above the preindustrial level, which would spur more ice shelf melt, is highly dangerous. Earth’s energy imbalance, which must be eliminated to stabilize climate, provides a crucial metric.

The paper is in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions, the discussion forum of the European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics [link]

Andy Revkin has two superb posts on the paper, which I will be referencing in m discussion below:

Reviews of the science

While the paper has not yet undergone formal peer review by the journal, journalists have elicited numerous reviews/comments from scientists. From the Washington Post,

Michael Mann “Their climate model scenario wherein Greenland and Antarctic meltwater caused by warming poles, leads to a near total shutdown of ocean heat transport to higher latitudes, cooling most of the globe (particularly the extratropics), seems rather far-fetched to me.” “Whether or not all of the specifics of the study prove to be correct, the authors have initiated an absolutely critical discussion.”

Kevin Trenberth, called the paper“provocative and intriguing but rife with speculation and ‘what if’ scenarios.” Trenberth objected in particular to the climate modeling scenarios used to study freshwater injection as ice sheets melt. “These experiments introduce a lot of very cold fresh water in various places, and then they see what happens.” “The question is how relevant these are to the real world and what is happening as global warming progresses? They do not seem at all realistic to me.” “There are way too many assumptions and extrapolations for anything here to be taken seriously other than to promote further studies.”

Richard Alley,“Many parts of the new paper are likely to stimulate much technical discussion and further research in our community, as we try to weave together the deep-time and recent history to provide useful projections for the future.” “This new paper is not ‘the answer,’” “Particularly, replacing the simple assumptions about doubling times of ice loss with physically based insights is a major focus of our field, but is not yet done and not likely to be ready really quickly.” Alley acknowledged that the IPCC’s sea level rise estimate “is well on the optimistic low-rise side of the possible outcomes,” and added that “the estimates in the new paper of freshening, and discussion of stabilization of the southern ocean and influences on precipitation, are interesting and important.”

From Revkin’s second post:

Tad Pfeffer: If you look at this from the point of view of somebody who’s trying to use this information for anything other than scientific satisfaction, whether or not these very, very rapid rates of sea level rise happen in the next few decades or the next few centuries makes all the difference in the world. The question of when does this start is not really addressed in this paper that I can find, and has been addressed only peripherally in most of the papers about ice sheet instability that I have seen. Ian Joughin made some statements recently [context] that I thought were pretty solid about it being a few centuries before this kind of very rapid sea level rise can take place and that makes sense to me because there are some very important things that you have to do in order to turn on the rapid response of the Antarctic ice sheet – you have to get rid of a couple of big ice shelves for starters. And it’s going to take a few centuries to do that. From a strictly geophysical, glaciological, point of view, a few centuries may not make much difference. But from the point of view of a planner, a policymaker, again these are the people who care about what exactly we’re saying. It makes all the difference in the world. And that’s the part I find missing in this paper. They have to say something about when this is going to occur. They may not be able to say with any great precision, but they have to say something. Because if this is something that’s going to happen in the next few decades, yeah, it’s something we’ve really got to wake up and pay attention about. If it’s something that’s going to happen in the next few centuries then there are a lot of other issues that we have to sort out first.

Without going into any details here, Revkin’s second post provides scientists’ comments that shows the whole section on Eemian superstorms appears to be without basis.

JC comments on the science

This is an intriguing and wide-sweeping paper that has put together a multi-disciplinary team to examine the possibility of near term catastrophic sea level rise.

For context, Hansen et al. present a much more extreme scenario than the  last report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the most recent assessment in 2014  “Expert assessment of sea-level rise by AD 2100 and AD 2300.”

Should we only pay attention to UN and NAS sanctioned assessments by expert teams? Absolutely not (note I will have a follow on post in a day or two that delves into this issue). As stated in my previous post What is the plausible ‘worst scenario’ for climate change?, we should be putting extreme scenarios out there and assess whether they are plausible, possible, or essentially impossible.

The biggest issue raised by Hansen is the potential (plausible? possible?) for a catastrophic >5 m sea level rise in the 21st century. Hansen et al. have proposed a  a new mechanism for faster sea level rise – can we falsify this?  The collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS)  is arguably the most alarming potential impact of global warming. WAIS has collapsed before during previous interglacials, and will undoubtedly collapse again (with or without AGW), with a ~5 m sea level rise. The issue is whether the WAIS can collapse on timescales of decades to a century. Based on what we know (summarized by Tad Pfeffer above), this is a process that would take centuries.

I am not an expert on sea level rise or ice sheets, but here are a few things that frame my own understanding, including some recent research:

  • Sea level has been rising for millennia. I am not convinced that there is a significant acceleration of sea level rise that can be attributed to human caused global warming (see this previous post).
  • Recent research from Scripps finds that the Greenland ice sheet did not melt as much as expected during the Eemian but that may mean Antarctic ice sheets melted more than expected.
  • A new paper summarized by Cato that found that the size of the Greenland ice sheet—especially the best observed portions covering the west and southwestern parts of Greenland—during the mid-Holocene was smaller than it is today—but not by a whole lot.
  • Study finds surprisingly high geothermal heating beneath west antarctic ice sheet [link]

So it looks like we should be more worried about WAIS than about Greenland, and it seems that natural processes (natural climate change and geothermal processes) have caused large sea level changes in the past during interglacial periods (albeit not rapid ones) and will continue to cause sea level to changes in the future. Human contribution so far to sea level rise does not seem particularly significant, given the early 20th century rate of sea level rise is about the same as the current rate. Our ways of inferring future rates of sea level rise from ice sheet melting is crude – we can speculate but not with much confidence. The danger posed by sea level rise is a function of the rate of change far more than the actual sea level itself.

Does Hansen et al. make any contribution to all this? Well their proposed mechanism with feedbacks is of interest and should be explored further. But their conclusions regarding an alarming rate of sea level rise are at best possible (and not plausible).

Policy relevance

The policy relevance of the Hansen et al. paper is the articulation of a possible worst case scenario of sea level rise. In robust decision making, the plausible worst case scenario informs decision making but does not necessarily dominate the decision making process.

What role does a ‘possible’ worst case scenario play, apart from clarifying what is plausible? Well, to alarm people and to help build political will to ‘act’ on emissions reductions, particularly for forthcoming Paris COP.

Regarding the policy relevance of the paper, Science Insider writes:

Whether this paper will become a key point of reference in the ongoing climate talks isn’t clear. In advance of the Paris meetings, negotiators from nearly every country in the world have provisionally agreed to the 2°C target. That there is even such an agreement in the offing seems like a victory, but whether it will be reached is still up in the air. Recognizing this, 24 academic and professional institutions in the United Kingdom yesterday issued a sternly worded joint communiqué that called on the international community to take immediate action on reducing emissions. The statement suggested that to have a chance of reaching that 2°C goal, Earth must become a zero-carbon world by the second half of the century. . . But how influential this paper will be is unclear, given its flaws.

Hansen has previously suggested that scientists are often too hesitant to say just how dire the situation is. A 2007 paper he co-authored, titled “Scientific Reticence and Sea Level Rise,” suggested that scientists felt constrained from sounding a full-fledged alarm on how high the waters will get, in part because of the cautious nature of scientific inquiry and the scientific method. But, he says in that paper’s abstract, “there is a danger in excessive caution.” The new paper, he told reporters yesterday, is “significantly more persuasive than anything previously published about just how dangerous 2°C warming would be.”

Hansen’s political agenda is evident as per Revkin’s post:

The new paper, which Hansen told me he’s been working on for eight years, was being rushed into public view with the hope of influencing negotiations at the December round of talks in Parisaimed at crafting a new global climate change agreement. You can hear from Hansen on the reasoning in the recording of his phone conference call with some reporters on Monday.

Also from Revkin regarding a passage apparently in the press release:

The paper got attention in advance because of this passage:

We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization. This image of our planet with accelerating meltwater includes growing climate chaos and storminess, as meltwater causes cooling around Antarctica and in the North Atlantic while the tropics and subtropics continue to warm. Rising seas and more powerful storms together are especially threatening, providing strong incentive to phase down CO2 emissions rapidly.

The backfire
The cited criticisms of the paper all make valid points. The criticisms of Mann and Trenberth are somewhat surprising to me, since I have seen them support papers that are at least as dubious as Hansen et al. Apart from the paper’s flaws, I suspect some of the backlash from these scientists  is associated with the fact that this paper has not yet been peer reviewed, and is an integrative, interdisciplinary assessment that challenges the IPCC and other established assessment reports. Revkin cites Tad Pfeffer: “One of the things that troubles me most is that the rapid-fire publication of unsettled results in highly visible venues creates the impression that the scientific community has no idea what’s going on.” There is clearly a concern that such independent assessments, especially by well known and/or reputable scientists, can undermine the authority and messaging of ‘establishment’ assessment and scientists.

Revkin provides some interesting insights into their publicity push and the media response:

But by late Tuesday, as other coverage built, so did questions about the way the study was released, and the quality of its analysis. Another sign  of trouble was that, despite the publicity push, the Associated Press, The New York Times, the BBC and The Guardian (despite its yearlong push for climate action blending advocacy and reporting) were among those who steered clear of the study. Listen to the taped call to get a visceral sense of the concerns of Seth Borenstein, the longtime climate reporter at the A.P.

That portentous section above — which in many ways is the only part of the paper that is news given how it centers on the “likely” inundation of most coastal cities in this century without aggressive emissions cuts — is not in the version the journal has posted. It’s in a shorter version, lacking references, that a publicist at Glover Park told me was going into more of a lay publication.

The final draft posted for discussion has more nuanced language, in line with what those arguing for more near-term climate and coastal risk have already articulated.

Maybe we’ll all be a little slower on the draw next time when work is promoted before it is publicized or peer reviewed. There are other merits to slowing down a bit in examining an issue that will be with us for generations — long past Paris. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

I think part of the backfire is associated with having Glover Park handle the media push. Glover Park provides strategic communications campaigns for corporations, non-profit organizations and industry associations. The Group is also involved in lobbying, but it definitely seems to be non-partisan (i.e. open to pretty much all paying customers – I wonder how much Hansen paid for their services and where the funds came from).

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen publicity for a research paper being handled by such a group (Glover doesn’t seem to have prior experience with this, since they rather bungled it for Hansen). Press releases are usually issued by universities, journals or funding agencies. Advocacy groups and think tanks also issue press releases for their own reports. But what about retired or independent scientists? And for scientists whose universities won’t issue a press release? E.g., Georgia Tech declined to issue a press release on Lewis and Curry; the paper was publicized on my blog and by the GWPF. In Hansen’s case, presumably NASA or Columbia could have issued the press release. But probably not including Hansen’s most alarming statements.

In any event, it is refreshing to see the maturity shown by some journalists in handling this issue. They seem to be well trained re the ‘sanctity’ of peer reviewed papers. I am also wondering whether Hansen’s explicit policy advocacy, coupled with a scientific research paper (esp one that had not undergone peer review), contributed to distrust of the research? You would hardly expect Jim Hansen to write a paper saying AGW is less alarming than we thought.

A combination of weak/speculative science, issuing the press release prior to peer review or at least public availability of the paper, a direct challenge to establishment assessment reports, policy advocacy, and use of a professional publicity/marketing/lobbying group to handle the publicity seems to have contributed to the backfire. I doubt that this paper will have any serious influence on the Paris deliberations.

July 26, 2015 - Posted by | Science and Pseudo-Science | ,


  1. The more I read the more I believe they are supporting future employment for their industry.


    Comment by richard123456columbia | July 26, 2015 | Reply

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    Comment by Dublinsmick | July 26, 2015 | Reply

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